Water companies including Severn Trent, United Utilities and Thames Water have been sent thousands of written warnings by England’s environmental regulator over suspected offences since 2015, according to an analysis of official data.
Nine water companies and one recycling group were collectively issued more than 2,800 warning letters, civil sanctions and enforcement “notices” for suspected offences between 2015 and 2022, a Financial Times freedom of information request has found.
Environmental groups said the findings demonstrated the regulator’s inability to hold companies to account following years of funding cuts, which had undermined its clout.
Severn Trent received the greatest number of so-called “enforcement actions” by a wide margin — 1,004 warning letters, 18 civil sanctions and 33 notices, according to the analysis of Environment Agency data.
They were followed by United Utilities, which was issued 391 actions in total. Meanwhile, Severn Trent was cautioned by the regulator nine times and prosecuted six times for environmental breaches, and United was cautioned nine times and prosecuted once.
The Environment Agency issues warnings if it believes that an individual or business has committed an offence — such as polluting a watercourse — with an outline of expected action.
Enforcement notices require companies to stop offending or to restore the environment, while non-criminal civil sanctions include fines.
Charles Watson, founder of charity and campaigning group River Action UK, said: “Whilst these figures are shocking they are not surprising.”
This is a “direct consequence of the systematic defunding of our environmental protection agencies over the past decade and a half”, he said, adding that regulator lacked the financial firepower to “take the legal action necessary”.
The analysis showed that more than 2,800 letters, civil sanctions and notices issued to the 10 companies related to more than 2,700 separate incidents. Some companies received multiple warning letters relating to the same concern.
Grant funding for the regulator’s environmental work has fallen sharply in recent years, from about £120mn in 2010 to £40mn in 2020. Sir James Bevan, chief executive of the agency, said in 2021 the reduction had limited its “capacity to monitor, to enforce the rules”.
The number of annual prosecutions by the agency fell from nearly 800 in 2007-08 to 17 in 2020-21, according to the public spending watchdog. Prosecutions were “resource intensive” and reserved for “cases of blatant criminality”, the National Audit Office said.
Housebuilders and waste companies were among those to receive multiple enforcement actions over the eight year period, the data showed.
Severn Trent said the “large majority of these reports are at the low-level “category three” — deemed as causing minor environmental damage — have been investigated without further action.
Northumbrian Water said that 215 out of the 228 letters, sanctions and notices it had received related to lower impact category three incidents.
United Utilities said the “make-up of the sewer network” in the North West had meant it had “25 per cent more overflows than the industry average”.
All three companies performed well in the agency’s 2021 “environmental performance assessment”, which measures a group’s performance against various targets, including on pollution incidents.
Southern Water insisted it was “committed to high standards”, while Thames Water said the warnings covered “a wide variety of topics relating to our infrastructure and operations”.
John Scanlon, chief executive of Suez, said there had been instances at a small number of sites “where our compliance has fallen short of the high standards that we aim for”, which were now remediated.
The Environment Agency said polluters would be “held to account through enforcement action, including prosecution for the most serious cases”.
The agency was “conducting a major industry-wide criminal investigation into potential non-compliance by water companies at wastewater treatment works”, it added.
The findings come as the government’s advisory body, the Climate Change Committee, said on Wednesday that a “major programme of investment” was required to enable the UK to adapt to warming. This would include preparation for flooding, strengthening infrastructure and investing in the water system.
The CCC added that the Office for Budget Responsibility fiscal watchdog should “undertake a full review” of how climate change will affect the UK’s “macroeconomic performance and public finances”.
Yorkshire Water, Anglian Water, South-West Water and Wessex Water declined to comment.